Is Faith Meritorious?

Let it never be said that I do not agree with a Calvinist when he’s right. In 1976 Pastor John Piper wrote the article below and I could not agree more with him on this point…

“The question I am trying to answer is this: If faith is the sine qua non of being saved (Ephesians 2:8; Acts 16:31; Romans 5:1), then is it proper to speak of faith as meriting salvation? Does one earn salvation by believing in Jesus?

First, note that this is not a serious question for the universalist. For him, the call to faith is the call to all people to recognize that they have already been justified and are being and will be saved. Nothing crucial hangs on the act of faith. But I am not working with the universalist assumption, but rather with the assumption that “we are justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) and without faith we are not saved and not justified.

In other words, I am assuming that the attitude of the heart and mind which we call faith is just as necessary to the salvation of the individual as the death and resurrection of Christ are, because it is that without which we will not be saved. Does this insistence that our faith is as necessary as Christ’s death for our salvation mean that our faith merits salvation?

How we answer this question depends on our use of the terms involved. The key terms are “merit” and “faith.” As the term is normally used, “to merit” (or “to deserve”) something good from somebody means to perform some act or manifest some quality which has enough value to another person that it morally obligates him to reward it.

Illustration 1 – The Guilty Convict

What faith involves and whether it “merits” salvation may be shown by two illustrations. First, picture yourself as a murderer condemned to death and awaiting execution. You are guilty and everyone knows it. You deserve to die. Then you get a letter from the President of the United States which says that he has, by his sovereign power, decided to remit your sentence and let you go free.

The reason he gives for this decision is not that any new evidence has turned up, but rather he simply wants to demonstrate to everyone his power in this declaration of mercy and to transform your disregard for his laws into humble adoration of his merciful sovereignty. He calls your attention to his seal on the letter and instructs you to simply show it to the warden, who will then let you go free—no questions asked.

So you call the guard, show him the letter and get a hearing with the warden. As you enter the warden’s office, you smell the fresh air of life and liberty blowing in his window and you see the tops of trees and a kite flying beyond the wall. You hand him the letter and he reads it. Without a query he orders the guard to get your things. As you leave the gates you turn to look at the massive prison and the row of windows where you had been an hour before. Then you start running and jumping and shouting and laughing and telling everyone, “The President let me out! The President let me out!”

Illustration 2 – The Poor Laborer

In the second illustration, picture yourself as a poor unskilled laborer who barely can scrape enough together to feed your wife and three children. One day you get in the mail a letter from a famous wealthy philanthropist. The letter says that if you will bring it to his lawyer, the lawyer will pay you a hundred thousand dollars—no strings attached. The reason he gives is simply that he enjoys giving to the poor.

There is no indication why he sent the letter to you and not to another. You need only go pick up the money with the letter. So you follow his instructions and go. Entering the lawyer’s office, you hand him the letter. He says he has been expecting you, writes the check and bids you farewell.

The question that these two stories raise is whether you, in either situation, could properly speak of “meriting” freedom or wealth? You did have to meet a condition: The sine qua non of freedom and wealth was to present the letters from the President and the philanthropist. But to use our definition of merit, was your presenting of the letters an act so valuable to the President or to the philanthropist that they were thus obligated to reward you?

Why Faith is not Meritorious

I think the answer is clearly no. Only one thing obligated the President and the philanthropist—their own honor. Insofar as they were committed to maintaining their own honor, it was morally impossible for them to refuse the favor they had promised. In other words, there was something so valuable to them that they were obligated to “reward” it, namely, their own good name.

Faith is symbolized by the response of the prisoner and the poor man. On what basis could they with any assurance lay claim to the promise of freedom and wealth? No use of the terms “merit” or “deserve” in our ordinary experience would justify the prisoner’s saying to the warden, “I deserve (or merit) freedom because I brought you this letter.” Nor could he properly say, “My act of bringing you this letter is an act so valuable to the President that he is therefore obligated to free me.” That statement completely contradicts the dynamics of this situation.

The prisoner may say one thing: “Our merciful President has sent me a letter of remittance and I believe that his faithfulness to his word and his commitment to his own honor is so great that in spite of my guilt he will certainly do what he has said.”

Faith is the one human act which morally obligates another person without calling attention to the other person’s honor. Faith in God’s promise obligates him to save the believer not because the quality of faith is meritorious, but because faith is the one human act which calls attention alone to God’s merit, honor and glory and his unswerving commitment to maintain that glory.

The Biblical Purpose of Faith

The cry of faith is found throughout the Psalms:

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; and deliver us and forgive our sins, for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 79:9).
“For the sake of thy name, O Lord, revive me” (Psalm 143:11).
“For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11).
“But thou, O Lord, deal kindly with me for thy name’s sake” (Psalm 109:21).
Paul spells out the essence of faith as the antithesis to merit when he says in Romans 4:4-5: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

And then Paul gives Abraham’s experience as the great pattern for all faith when he says, “With respect to the promise of God (the letters of the President and the philanthropist) Abraham did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Romans 4:20).” -John Piper

When he is right, he is right. 🙂

16 thoughts on “Is Faith Meritorious?

  1. Good article Eric. But unfortunately, I’m guessing that back then Piper did not believe a letter of pardon or wealth is given to everyone to present in faith to receive its benefits… and to those few it is given, in his view, they are irresistibly persuaded by being handed that letter, that Piper thinks they will be irresistibly believe it for them and then they will irresistibly present it to receive their pardon or wealth.

    I am guessing my guess it correct, even though I am not supposed to really understand Calvinism, having never been one. 😉

    1. brianwagner writes, “I’m guessing that back then Piper did not believe a letter of pardon or wealth is given to everyone to present in faith to receive its benefits… and to those few it is given,…I am guessing my guess it correct, even though I am not supposed to really understand Calvinism, having never been one.”

      If you understand Calvinism, then you know that it is faith that is given to the few. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me,…” To “come” is to believe and be saved. Paul added, “For by grace you have been saved through faith;…For we are God’s workmanship,…” Is that how you understand Calvinism?

      1. I think you understand, Roger, the depth of my understanding Calvinism and where I disagree with it and its twisting of Scripture that devalues God’s mercy and justice! 😉

  2. You can make same question for repentance (condional election?) – both are solemn obligations, and also inseparable graces, wrought in our souls by the quickening of the Holy Spirit. When we are convicted of our guilt, we humbly turn to God with unfeigned contrition, confession and supplication for His mercy; at the same time heartily receiving the Lord and openly confessing Him as our only and all-sufficient Savior.

  3. Wow Eric! Nice find!

    The president pardoned him, but he stays in jail unless he presents the letter.

    The president does NOT go take him out of jail. He has to believe the pardon and act on it.

    The rich man gives the poor man money, but the poor man has to present the paper to the lawyer.

    In no way can either of them say their faith produce the freedom and wealth…. but they still had to have it…. and it wasnt given to them.

    John Piper….. Arminian! Who knew!?

  4. DR4

    Quoted right out of a doctrine book by Preston Toliver (p. 55), and no doubt quoted by him from someone else.

    I believe that Piper’s illustration shows that there was no pre-quickening by the warden or the rich man. The salvation and wealth were there but had to be claimed in faith by the person.

    Just like we see with the greatest of pre-examples of the Cross, Passover. Salvation provided by God, with the condition that the blood be applied in faith.

  5. Let us also note that in neither case cited by Piper were either of the men “too dead” to act.

    All the mercy came from the president and the rich man…. but the receiver was surely able to respond in faith.

    It is fantastic when Piper keeps providing non-Calvinistic concepts in his writings…. proving the idea that one might “theologize” like Calvinism is true but we sure dont live, teach, and talk like it!

  6. Brian,

    Funny….. you said..

    “in his [Piper’s] view, they are irresistibly persuaded by being handed that letter…”

    Yes… for him that would have to be true….. but it’s not found in his story (or ever included in such stories!!).

    Think how ridiculous the story would sound if he added “the dead men were irresistibly persuaded that it was true.”

    Nah… that’s not a story! That’s a philosophy!

  7. Does anyone know if Piper was a Calvinist in 1976? No one of course is a Calvinist when they are saved because no one would come up with this philosophy on their own, they have to have is ingrained into them by other Calvinists so they can then go back read the Bible “correctly” with their Calvinist glasses on. Even Augustine, the originator of it, didn’t come up with this philosophy when he was first saved. He “discovered” it (along with many other wrong doctrines based on mis-reading of scripture) when he started his fight against Pelagius.
    Just wondering if he may have written this before he was a Calvinist.

    1. andyb,

      I remember John MacArthur’s pre-Calvinist days (he started at Bob Jones U!) ….. and of course Piper had them (and talks about them).

      I think this article is written in his already-Calvinist days…but it really doesn’t matter. He still leaves it up on his desiringgod web site (as if he still believes it). And yes….taken at face-value the article debunks what he theologizes about. But that is not a problem to him.

      He teaches determinism and writes books called “Dont Waste Your Life” (as if we could go one way or the other on “wasteful” actions).

      He teaches TULIP and the entire book by close associate Jon Bloom “Not By Sight” is all about the 35 examples of faith in the Word and how we need to follow them (some are saving faith—- so do it! he says).

      Yes, a very cake-and-eat-it-too situation where he stands with Anabaptist-drowning Calvin and Mary-worshiping Augustine (to show his bona fides) in a theological sense, but in a practical sense he teaches that faith is up to the person.

  8. Great article Eric!

    I like the prisoner analogy especially!

    If faith is a meritorious work – then Jesus is dishonoring the Father – when he commands the blind man to go wash his face.
    This man – by faith – obeys him – washes his face and is then healed.
    According to this definition – this man would have performed a work and thereby merited God’s act of healing by his own works.

    Would Jesus be involved in something that would dishonor the Father?

    All of Jesus’ healings would follow this model.

  9. Thanks for finding this Eric.

    Most Calvinist’s I know would probably agree that faith is not a meritorious act if asked.

    The problem is that that then turn around and say things that assume that faith is a meritorious act in salvation like “why did you believe and your friend didn’t, were you better or smarter or more righteous than they were” or “you believe man is the the ultimate decisive factor in his salvation” or “you believe man is sovereign over salvation” or “you believe God and man cooperate to achieve salvation” or “so you believe God does 95% of it and you did the other 5%”

    Piper’s article will be very useful in driving this point home, as they will have a hard time arguing with one of their own heroes.

  10. The Calvinist says that faith is a gift from God and is not meritorious. Eric describes a faith that appears to be inherent in the person, “First, picture yourself as a murderer condemned to death and awaiting execution…Then you get a letter from the President of the United States which says that he has, by his sovereign power, decided to remit your sentence and let you go free.” The faith exercised in this example is not a faith given to the person by God – thus, it is meritorious. Absent the person taking action, the letter is worthless. If the person must take action in order to apply the pardon, then that action is meritorious. The second example is the same – “The letter says that if you will bring it to his lawyer, the lawyer will pay you a hundred thousand dollars…” The action of bringing the letter to the lawyer is a meritorious work. Now if, the prisoner received the letter and immediately walked out of the prison or the poor person, on receiving the letter, immediately went on a spending spree then you have non-meritorious faith.

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